working from home

This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Financial advisors have long understood the critical importance of keeping their team members focused and engaged. Today, with you and your staff working from home to fight the spread of Covid-19, the challenge in keeping associates and assistants positive, motivated and working well together has never been greater.

“In this time, [when] everyone is feeling a little scared, isolated or a just a bit worried, I want to make sure that my team is in a good frame of mind, first and foremost, so that we in turn can be pillars of strength for our clients,” says Maili Wong, executive vice president and senior portfolio manager with Winnipeg-based Wellington-Altus Private Wealth Inc. in Vancouver, where she leads a team of six.

Business coaches and industry executives agree that a key element in helping your business thrive during this uncertain time is establishing a sense of structure and routine while being adaptable, and providing staff with the opportunity to manage family or health issues.

“Help create the boundaries for everyone on the team, because otherwise they’re pulled in every direction all the time,” says Sara Gilbert, founder of Montreal-based Strategist Business Development. “Once everyone has a schedule that fits with their current reality, that will bring back a sense of normalcy.”

Another key factor in maintaining team cohesion is communicating effectively and connecting with staff on an ongoing basis, both as a group and as individuals, says April-Lynn Levitt, business coach with The Personal Coach in Waterloo, Ont.

“There’s probably no such thing as too much communication right now,” says Levitt, who suggests that contacting staff regularly will help prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication and allay anxiety and fear.

Wong instituted a team huddle via video conference for every morning and afternoon, which “allows me to check in with everybody, give a little update and ask each of them to share how they’re doing, either personally or professionally. Good news first, and then down to business.”

Levitt says that some advisors may choose to match their team’s virtual routines to the routine they had established when they were working in the office, providing staff with a familiar structure: “If you were having a weekly meeting anyway, keep that going, but just do it on a video [call].”

Levitt suggests that if your team has the capability to do video calls, your staff should be encouraged to participate that way rather than by phone: “Everyone is more engaged that way; they’re not doing other things.”

Virtual meetings should have an agenda, and someone should be asked to keep minutes or provide a summary, including action items, Levitt says. “And [the meetings should] start on time and end on time,” she says. “I’ve seen a couple of instances already where that’s not happening, and people get really frustrated with that.”

Gilbert also believes in the value of advisors communicating with team members by video: “Your staff needs more than just to read your emails or even to hear your voice [on the phone], but to see you in action as well,” she says. “Because what happens with an email is that I read it with my internal voice, and if my internal voice is worried or concerned, that’s how I’m going to interpret the words.”

You may have to adjust or adapt your staff members’ schedules to account for individual needs and challenges, particularly associates and assistants who may have young children at home or who have to take care of elderly family members.

“Work with [your staff] to create blocks of time when they are working, and blocks of time when they are with their family,” Gilbert says.

And for staff members with kids who are home because of school closures, a little patience and understanding goes a long way.

“One of my clients, the other day, had the kids come say hi to me for a minute before our video conference,” Levitt says. “Once [the kids] saw what she was doing and figured out that it was boring, they left. They were just curious; they wanted to see who Mommy was talking to.”

Frank Di Pietro, assistant vice president, tax and estate planning, with Toronto-based Mackenzie Investments in St. Catharines, Ont., says balancing parenting a young child with work was one of his trickiest challenges when he began working from home three years ago.

“We have rules at home: if my door’s closed, you can’t just walk in because you don’t know if Dad is on a phone call or in a meeting,” Di Pietro says. “That was tough at first, but as time went on, my son learned when he’s allowed to come in and when he can’t.”

You also should remember to check in with team members individually. For one thing, this allows you to find out if staff members have been struggling with anxiety or are feeling overwhelmed by work or events. “[The Covid-19 pandemic] is affecting people differently,” Levitt says.

Setting up virtual coffee meetings with staff members also allows for the type of unstructured conversation that you might have when you bump into colleagues at the water cooler.

“A lot of people are missing that [element of office life],” Di Pietro says. Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes to connect with a colleague by phone or video for coffee provides “some of that human interaction, because that certainly can get lost if you’re working from home.”

Gilbert says you should outline a goal or two for your team for the week, as well as keep focused on longer-term initiatives for growth in your business. Setting achievable goals gives your team a sense of purpose and certainty. “[The intent] is not just about reacting to things,” she says.

You also must set a regular schedule for yourself. Take breaks from the business and work, spend time with your family and friends (virtually, if necessary) and take care of yourself, Gilbert says.

“The way you manage your emotions; the way you manage your mindset — that’s what’s going to make the difference,” Gilbert says, “Because as you’re talking with clients, you’re sharing that mindset [and] that energy that you’re carrying around.”

Now that most advisory teams have ironed out their initial technology and operational issues and have taken steps to reassure clients, there’s a new focus throughout the financial services industry on ways of navigating the time ahead, says Sylvain Brisebois, national sales manager with Toronto-based BMO Private Wealth in Ottawa.

“Now we’re talking about [building] resilience,” says Brisebois, who explains that he and his leadership team are encouraging advisors and their teams across the country to try to establish a work/life balance, which is especially tricky when you live where you work. “It’s about the well-being of our advisors,” Brisebois says.

“Turning work on and off was really a hard adjustment for me at first,” Di Pietro says. “I found myself jumping back and forth, working really late and not being able to find that switch.” Giving yourself time away to recharge is critical, he adds: “I’ve gotten better at it.”

Brisebois says his firm has made a special effort to help its younger advisors who may not have experienced a significant market crash. Brisebois has moderated conference calls in which a few of the firm’s more experienced advisors share their thoughts on how “you navigate in these times; how you continue to serve your clients, build your business and stay sane. The calls have been highly popular.”

Younger advisors, who often are still establishing themselves and who can’t necessarily fall back on a large book of business, are “learning everything in a crash course,” says Terri Botosan, CEO of Hub Financial Inc. in Woodbridge, Ont. “My advice to them would be to lean on us. We have lots of expertise on our sales team; lots of ways to help them.”

Reaching out — not just to your clients and your team members, but your broader network as well — just to check in, listen and see how you may be able to lend a hand is important.

“We’ve been telling our advisors: ‘People are really going to remember how you made them feel right now’,” Botosan says. “People are going to remember that you reached out.”

Says Brisebois: “[Advisors] are calling in and checking in on each other, taking a little bit of time during the day to call a colleague from across the country to say, ‘You know, we’re in this together’.”